Originally Published: January 31, 2018 11 p.m.
Updated as of Thursday, February 1, 2018 6:09 AM
Kevin Barberena dreams of one day becoming a UFC fighter
Chances are that when Kevin Barberena isn’t battling wildland fires with the U.S. Forest Service, he’s either training or sparring in the offseason at Average Joe’s MMA gym, an inconspicuous space in a strip mall at 609 Miller Valley Road in Prescott.
It’s all part of Kevin’s goal to accomplish his dream of fighting in the UFC one day soon. On Friday night, the 27-year-old MMA pro featherweight will challenge himself like never before when he faces 5-foot-9, 135-pound Dinis “Sweetbread” Paiva on the CES MMA Card in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
“It’s definitely a step up in competition, and a bigger show than all the shows I’ve been fighting on lately,” Kevin said about Friday’s bout last week from Average Joe’s, a 1,200-square-foot complex. “He’s probably the most veteran fighter I’ve fought. He has the most fights; the most experience.”
Gym mates, family and friends will gather at 5 p.m. Friday inside the recently opened Native Bar & Grill off Highway 69 in Prescott Valley to watch the fight live nationally on AXS TV at 7. They’re excited because the 5-foot-7, 156-pound Kevin’s the first fighter from Prescott on a card of this caliber, Average Joe’s amateur fighter Carolyn Gerhardt said.
CES serves as an MMA promotion that the UFC sponsors to scout new fighters. Kevin’s an up-and-comer with a future in UFC and/or Bellator MMA. He’s well-balanced and a good striker with his feet and hands. And yet he dominates as a wrestler on the floor in “ground-and-pound” situations.
“When he fights, he has that killer instinct where he’ll grind until they [opponents] don’t want to go anymore,” Gerhardt said.
Kevin first moved to the area about 13 years ago (2005-09) and attended Prescott High School, where he wrestled for two seasons and played football. At 17, he relocated to Minnesota and graduated with a GED diploma in 2009.
Joining the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter in town four years ago, Kevin works April through October. But he stays in shape the whole year, even when he’s not in Arizona – running down hotel hallways, if necessary, following a 12-hour shift. He fought MMA bouts last March and September, both before and after fire season.
“We were in Black Hills, South Dakota, and Dubois, Wyoming, and then I came home for three days and then I fought,” said Kevin, who works on Engine 933 in Crown King and Mayer and soon plans to apply for a permanent position. “I’ve been all over – all over town, all over the country.”
His older brother, Bryan (6 feet, 210 pounds), was a standout linebacker at Prescott High School who today competes as a welterweight in the UFC, the highest level of MMA, which Kevin’s pursuing.
Kevin’s twin brother, Kody, used to fight. Now he helps Kevin train and game plan. Kevin weighed 173 pounds when he started at Average Joe’s.
“When I was younger, I always wanted to be a fighter,” Kevin said. “Boxing really was the thing back then, so I wanted to be a boxer.”
While growing up, Kevin learned about cage fighting and MMA. He didn’t pay much attention to it back then, when he got into fights and landed in trouble. Fighting’s the only thing Kevin felt he could do well. Bryan’s a more natural athlete who could play football, soccer and other sports.
“That’s why I went with MMA,” Kevin said. “I did wrestling because I wanted to be a better fighter.”
At Average Joe’s, where he’s been for the past three years since it opened (albeit in a different location in town), Kevin credits fellow fighters Zane Davis, Francisco “El Pancho” Sanchez, 21, and others, including Gerhardt, for their support.
In the winter, usually the offseason for fighting fires, Kevin’s training in the gym, where co-owners John and Sandra Potenza offer group training for all skill levels in MMA, boxing, kickboxing, conditioning and grappling.
“He has a lot of drive in him,” Sanchez said of Kevin. “He’s always the ‘first one in, last one out’ type of guy.”
ON THE HORIZON
Kevin’s next fight is tentatively scheduled for March 14 in Flagstaff. He said that he must go on a winning streak in these tougher bouts before Bellator or UFC were to show an interest in “calling” him.
Armed with a 5-3 record, Kevin said he wants at least two to four more victories under his belt before attempting a call-up. He also would need to train with more experienced fighters in Phoenix.
Kevin said that on Friday he’ll be fighting for his 3-year-old son, Emerson.
“They could call me after this fight [Friday] if I win it – get a fight in Bellator or even the UFC,” he added. “Usually it doesn’t work like that. You have to get more wins. I want to keep going until I get to the top.”
Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.